A color can strike a mood, create a sense of visual unity and give a film identity. The first film in Kryzstoz Kieslowski’s Three Color’s Trilogy achieves all three. But it goes further than simple aesthetic effect; the color bleeds out of the screen and reaches further into things beyond. At first the idea to make a film based around a primary color seems a simple hook into the film to separate it from similar foreign dramas. But the influence of the color reaches further, goes deeper and touches upon almost every aspect of the film. The color simple isn’t an afterthought; it’s what separates this film from so many others similar to it.
Much like the color blue the world of this film is a cold one. In the opening moments of this film Julie (Juillett Binoche) suffers a horrible loss as she is the sole survivor of a car crash that kills her husband and daughter. There’s an initial period of grief and sorrow at their loss but it soon turns to bitterness. She becomes indifferent to the world around her, losing all feeling and numbed by the harsh world around her. Julie turns to her lover Olivier (Benoît Régent) but after making love she becomes harsh, her words calculated and her conversation afterwards biting and cruel. She makes up her mind, selling all her rich and worldly possessions and starts anew, leaving behind all relationships and obligations she had before.
Yet she keeps one remnant of the past she, a gorgeous blue lamp of beads that hung in her daughter’s room. She hands it up prominently in her new apartment, a reminder of her now lost family. It becomes an external source of Julie’s internal tension. The first time we see it she rips a handful of the beads off in anger, mad at the emotions it evokes. In another she reaches out to it, as if trying to get back in touch with the past, but finds it too bitter. In another scene a guest reaches out to touch the lamp as Julie trembles in the background. It’s the tensest scene in the movie as if the individual has touched the very soul of Julie’s vulnerability. Her hands begin to shake, and she is obviously moved by it although how remains to be seen.
A lot of the tension comes from the fact that this character is so wildly unpredictable. She can turn from warm to cold in an instant. One moment we expect her to be gracious and she acts cool and aloof. In the next moment we expect her to lose it and absolutely thrash out but she restrains herself. Kieslowski is not simply subverting audience expectations based on the years of the conventions of drama but he’s showing that human emotions are not predictable affairs. Sorrow is a messy business and its expression is not predictable.
Some might accuse Kieslowski’s expression in the film pretentious. There are a number of sequences where a bombastic score rises, overwhelming all other sounds, and a hue of blue overtakes the screen. But the effect is purely in service to the narrative. Before her husband’s untimely demise he was composing a score for the Unification of Europe. Early on she destroys the music but she can’t escape the score in her head. Out of nowhere it comes to haunt her, the swelling music haunting her thoughts at her most vulnerable and difficult moments. And the blue comes, sometimes in an aura that surrounds her, other times in flashes of light. The color blue becomes a character, a manifestation of the past, as if the spirit of her dead husband comes to haunt her though his music.
In all these ways blue comes more than simply a color. It becomes a character, an ideology, a motive and a past. It can still simply be enjoyed on a visceral level but it loses its depth and nuance. Whether it is the flashes of light across Julie’s face or an under-lit pool the color blue is there for a reason. It’s absent in some scenes because it has no place within the context of what is happening. It would be easy for cinematographer Slawomir Idziak to go overboard with the color but he tastefully places it at key emotional moments.
The visuals of the film also create an unspoken idea of how Julie is coping with her suffering. Throughout the film there are some extreme close-ups of simple objects, the main one being the coffee cup. On two occasions Julie simply absorbs herself in looking at a coffee cup. She only focuses on the things closely immediate to her and having removed all of her past all that is left is the new and simple. In abstracting the world around her she avoids the pain and bitterness of her loss.
The idea behind the Three Colors Trilogy was to capture the three ideologies behind the three colors of the French flag. Blue represents freedom. Yet the freedom Julie experiences is a perverse one. Her husband and daughter gone she is without the responsibilities of a wife and mother. She also leaves the demands of affection when she abandons her lover. Her husband’s wealth is so great that she does not have to work, allowing her to do whatever she wants. Even from the beginning she realizes how vain this freedom is. When she looks for her apartment she is asked for her occupation. She simply says “nothing” and that one word line is one of the most devastating of the film. Julie realizes the trap of pure freedom: it leaves one not only with no obligations or expectations but also no purpose.
There’s debate over which is the best entry in the trilogy. Red and Blue are the two big contenders. Both are fantastic dramas and beautiful cinematic wonders but, to me, Blue has something that Red lacks. There’s something elegantly meticulous about Blue from beginning to end. Each moment flows into the next, creating an undercurrent that drags us throughout and it all comes back to the emotional state of Julie. There’s something deeply human and involving about Julie’s story that resonates through each moment and reverberates long after the credits have rolled.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing